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Warn supervisors: Over-the-Top, irrational behavior may mean personal liability

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Dealing with Bosses,Leaders & Managers,Office Management

Do you have a problem supervisor or manager who acts like a Marine Corps drill sergeant? Brash “leadership” may get results, but it often creates an unpleasant work environment. And while it may not be technically illegal to berate and yell at subordinates (as long as there’s no racial, sexual or otherwise offensive name-calling), abusive bosses sometimes cross a dangerous legal line—the one that marks the boundary of behavior that constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Warn hot-headed supervisors that they risk personal liability if they don’t cool it. An employee claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress can sue the company and the supervisor personally, collecting from both.

Recent case: Gail McCauley quit her job as a denture maker after she was transferred to a new supervisor with a less than pleasant demeanor. McCauley claimed the supervisor screamed at her daily, made her depressed and nervous, and finally upset her so much she couldn’t come to work anymore.

McCauley sued the company and the supervisor for intentional infliction of emotional distress, arguing that all the yelling and screaming were meant to make life so unpleasant she had to quit.

The court looked carefully at the supervisor’s conduct. Because much of the yelling had to do with how fast McCauley worked (or more to the point, how slowly she worked), the court didn’t see any specific intent to harm McCauley. It said the conduct wasn’t outrageous enough to merit holding the company liable.

And because McCauley never actually served legal papers against the supervisor, she couldn’t hold him responsible. (McCauley v. PDS Dental Laboratories, et al., No. 90086, Court of Appeals of Ohio, 2008)

Final note: Although the employer and supervisor technically won, it would have been far better to avoid the courtroom. There’s really no reason for a supervisor to yell and scream. Why risk that a judge or jury will find such behavior outrageous? If the supervisor needs convincing, remind him that he may have to pay at least part of the jury award.

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